An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna
Department of Education and Skills
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Scoil Phobail Bhéara
Roll number: 91387Q
Date of inspection: 18 November 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject
inspection in Scoil Phobail Bhéara , Co.
Scoil Phobail Bhéara, while situated at the
south-western edge of the country, engages in a range of practices which place
it at the heart of the inclusion movement in post-primary schools in
The school’s total allocation of 55.5 hours for provision for special educational needs is used for the purposes intended. A full range of needs are identified in the school including students with low-incidence and high-incidence disabilities, as well as students with low achievement in literacy and numeracy. A core team comprising three dedicated, diligent and committed teachers is well-qualified in special needs education. They work closely with one another, the principal and other colleagues to deliver additional support for learning in a variety of effective ways. One of these teachers, as part of an assistant principal post, co-ordinates the provision of additional supports for students identified with special educational needs. Support for students with English as an additional language is co-ordinated separately by another teacher with experience in the area. The school is mindful of the potential for this cohort of students to also present with special educational needs including being exceptionally able and gifted. There are five fulltime special needs assistants appointed to the school and their contribution is duly acknowledged in this report.
Classes in Scoil Phobail Bhéara are formed on the basis of mixed ability, with the Junior Certificate School Programme and the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme available to students. A member of the core team co-ordinates both of these programmes and this in turn assists with the quality of provision provided by the school. Interventions to support identified students usually focus on specific language and mathematical needs. A suitable balance is maintained between the provision of support to address specific needs and access to the broader curriculum. This support is provided in a flexible and student-focused manner and includes individual student withdrawal, small group withdrawal and, on occasions team-teaching, where two teachers work together with students in one classroom. Students requiring support with specific subjects may also be aligned with the relevant qualified teachers. The decision to withdraw students from classes is made following consultation with students and their parents. Every effort is made to ensure that such decisions are made in the best interest of the student and that they don’t diminish a student’s perception of themselves as learners, or diminish future career choices. The school is encouraged to continue to examine and review what is best for these students on an individual basis.
The school is well resourced with two adjoining classrooms designated to provide additional support. These rooms are equipped with a range of appropriate materials and ICT facilities. The ongoing interaction by the core team with their own professional learning, including post-graduate qualifications and studies ensures that the most up-to-date materials are accessed and used appropriately and imaginatively. A wide range of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities are open to all students and this in turn assists in welcoming and including students in all aspects of school life. Displays of students’ work are a common feature in these rooms as is the use of photography to capture students’ activities and interests. Such displays promote a sense of pride among students in their work, and a sense of belonging in their school. The school also gives expression to its inclusive nature by operating a mentoring programme for teachers new to the school, a cross-age buddy system among students within the school, and provides computer classes for more elderly members of the community which is supported by transition year students.
There is very good provision and support for students with special educational needs in Scoil Phobail Bhéara. A palpable sense of community and belonging is seen to be both a product and a driver of a range of activities that promote a purposeful and inclusive learning environment as witnessed over the course of the two day inspection.
The appointment of three qualified teachers to collaborate with one another and with colleagues gives testimony to the school’s recognition of the importance of planning and preparation. The allocation of assistant principal duties to co-ordinate provision is also indicative of the school’s priorities. The school has commenced a draft special educational needs policy which seeks to capture existing practices and map out future areas for development. The school is very much aware of the interconnection between the promotion of inclusive practices and school improvement.
Informed by the Department of Education and Science Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007) the special educational needs draft policy may benefit from highlighting the following; the criteria for accessing support, the central role of the subject teacher in the promotion of effective teaching and learning opportunities, the various modes of delivery associated with such support, and an inventory of successful strategies and methodologies deployed by teachers. As discussed with teachers and principal, the completed policy document may in turn be a stand alone special educational needs policy or emerge as a central feature of an overarching inclusion policy.
Other good work being undertaken offer similar possibilities in the development of policies associated with whole-school approaches to literacy and numeracy. The varied care duties performed by the special needs assistance are recognised and valued by the school community. In this regard, the decision by both special needs assistants and teachers to draw up guidelines of good practice is commended and will also support overall policy development and implementation. The school is encouraged to review its policies in relation to their inclusive nature, and in particular a review of the school’s enrolment policy is advised as the current wording does not reflect the inclusive practice and leadership shown by school personnel.
It is recommended that the school consider how the expansion of the existing staff handbook could also support the communication, implementation and review of policies by devoting a section of the handbook to a range of associated concepts. Clear statements on agreed context-based interpretations of terms such as ‘inclusion’, ‘differentiation’, ‘assessment’, ‘whole-school approach’, literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ may be of benefit. Detailed reference in the handbook to the successful teaching and learning practices engaged in by teachers may also prove useful in capturing and promoting the diverse methods that are employed in meeting the diverse needs presenting.
Commendable aspects of planning and preparation include the early engagement with the primary feeder schools, combined with assessment of students’ abilities and contact with parents. As discussed with principal and teachers, visits to the primary schools would benefit from members of the core team also being in attendance. Engagement with relevant external agencies is routinely undertaken by the core team. As witnessed in the course of this inspection, good communication exists between the school and the Visiting Teacher Service for the Deaf. At the time of the inspection there was no representative from NEPS assigned to the school.
In more recent times the three core team members’ timetables are completed at the beginning of the school year, once the master timetable has been constructed. While this practice facilitates the use of the additional hours for the purposes intended and in a manner that seeks to be consistent, it has limitations. It is recommended that the school incorporate all known additional hours at the time of the construction of the master timetable. This will facilitate an equally consistent and cohesive use of resources as before, but in addition will allow for the delivery of supports to commence in a more timely manner at the start of the school year. Such practice will also allow the provision to be utilised in a range of purposeful and proactive ways, including team-teaching. It will in turn further facilitate staff communication through the allocation of a regular meeting time for the core team and set aside time for a member of the core team to attend the weekly year-head meeting. Furthermore, simultaneous timetabling can take cognisance of core team members’ requests to teach some limited number of mainstream classes and thus continue their own diverse professional development and possibly reduce the need for withdrawal of students. Supporting such action will also assist with the dissemination and promotion of best practice through attendance at subject planning meetings.
During the evaluation some discussion took place in relation to planning for individual students and groups of students. The school uses a detailed student profile in its work and has begun to examine how ICT can facilitate the creation of individual educational plans (IEP) where collective responses can be framed to meet individual needs as mediated through the curriculum and syllabi being pursued. Teachers are well aware that the focus of each IEP should stretch beyond the construction of the plan and also give due regard to the implementation, evaluation and review of each plan as seen through the desired learning outcomes achieved by individuals and small groups of students. Such outcomes, can attend to both the affective as well as cognitive domains. Team-teaching, as practised in the past, may also help in this regard. It is recommended that the school review its use of this mode of delivery to support learning among students. Circular 23/03 which states “wherever possible, schools should provide additional help for children in the mainstream classroom……….” and the aforementioned Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007) will support future efforts undertaken by the school.
Many of the aspects associated with a student register, detailing individual student’s needs, additional hours allocated, the teachers and non-teaching staff involved, the models of delivery and the programme of work being undertaken are already in place. With some additional information this register will serve to inform and guide all staff in their engagements with individual students. Additional information could include an outline of students’ learning styles and strengths, the progress made and when further progress will be reviewed, and by whom. Furthermore, such a register would assist in tracking the cumulative effect of certain delivery models upon the overall additional hours allocated and their impact upon achieving optimum outcomes for students. Similarly, the register could inform and be informed by IEPs.
Planning and preparation in this school draws upon a range of good practices associated with other aspects of school work. The deliberate transfer of good practice associated with the Junior Certificate School Programme, to the benefit of all students, is a good example of the reflective and innovative culture of the school. Planning and preparation is also informed by the school’s involvement with facilitating research activities, both national and international, that promote inquiry and improvement. Teachers individually and collectively continue to access and participate in an impressive range of relevant professional development from which the school benefits significantly. The school provides learning opportunities for staff by facilitating presentations, by internal and external presenters, in relation to an impressive variety of associated actions such as, the promotion of literacy and numeracy, teaching in mixed-ability settings, assessment for learning, co-operative learning, teaching hearing impaired students and how best to promote inclusive practices through whole-school approaches.
While there are some areas of planning and preparation that require attention, the overall quality of collective planning and preparation in the school is good. Subject department planning has begun to attend to students with special educational needs. Individual teacher planning and preparation, as witnessed during the inspection, was of a high quality and impacted very positively on the quality of teaching and learning observed.
The overall quality of learning and teaching observed was uniformly very good. Nine lessons were observed over the course of the two-day inspection and involved seven teachers. These lessons ranged in size from small group withdrawal to whole-class teaching groups and spanned both junior and senior cycle programmes. The lessons observed focused on a range of learning outcomes including the development of literacy and numeracy skills, specific individual learning needs as well as attending to certain subject disciplines and activities including, English, Mathematics, Home-Economics, a first-year tutorial class and a fourth-year work experience module.
Lessons were well planned and well paced with a range of appropriate resources used to good effect. Mutual respect between teachers and students was evident throughout the school and the inclusive atmosphere as witnessed in the staffroom was also evident in the engagements between staff and students in the classrooms. Teacher-student and student-student relations were positive along corridors and in classrooms, with student, as well as teacher, actions promoting and sustaining a quality learning environment. In the lessons inspected teachers were attentive to individuals throughout and questions were framed and distributed in a variety of ways that appropriately challenged and supported learners. The purposeful learning environment encouraged students to ask questions and seek clarifications where necessary. Judicious use of praise and humour also cultivated a positive learning environment as did the teachers’ knowledge of their students, their interests and their families. Teachers were comfortable in giving little insights into their own lives which gave students the confidence to do likewise and so form connections that promoted classroom environments in a manner that was trusting and respectful and conducive to learning.
In the lessons observed students were engaged in a range of meaningful and purposeful learning activities. Formative assessment practices were witnessed regularly. Some lessons began and concluded with an outline of the objectives of the lesson and the desired learning outcomes for the students. Students always knew what was being asked of them and why. Good use of the whiteboard and of graphic organisers such as ‘fishbone’ and ‘mindmapping’ were evident in some lessons. Here teachers noted diverse responses as opportunities for learning and for discussion.
All teachers made good use of direct and global questioning and allowed sufficient time for student responses. The positive learning atmosphere allowed teachers to devote their attention to ensuring all students participated in the lesson and, in lessons with larger numbers of students, teachers ensured that all students were given an opportunity to think and to respond without interruption. Purposeful and strategic seating of students also assisted in maximising students’ engagement and achievement as did posters with subject specific rules and concrete examples of the topic under discussion. Teachers took cognisance of the level of difficulty associated with the questions they posed. In selecting respondents, it was evident throughout that teachers made a strong connection between their own success as teachers and their students’ success as learners.
Students were seen to respond well to each others efforts and gave each other many opportunities to participate and benefit from the lessons. A good example of this was the clever deployment of students in a class in which one of its members had a hearing impairment. A student was selected to record on the whiteboard their peers’ contributions to a ‘brainstorming’ exercise while the teacher faced the class at all times. In keeping with the concept of universal design the teacher facilitated access to the lesson for all students by being visible to all throughout the lesson and by repeating the verbal contributions made from the floor by the students.
Differentiated practice and constant feedback were particularly noticeable in the classes that were comprised of smaller groups. Such classes allowed individual and curricular needs to be addressed in a manner that appropriately challenged each learner within the framework of syllabus and programme requirements. Tactics used by teachers included the pre-teaching of keywords in advance of reading a passage of text. Students in these smaller groups were reassured that learning can involve being confused, taking chances and making mistakes where ‘it was ok to be wrong’. Students were visibly comfortable with helping one another and were benefiting from the additional support being provided.
Use of paired and small group work among students also promoted student participation and learning. A range of skills including, turn taking, teamwork, use of technology, use of graphic organisers, higher order thinking skills and listening skills were also witnessed during the course of the inspection. Student self advocacy was actively encouraged by some teachers and students were confident in what they had to say and where they wished to focus their efforts at learning.
These smaller groups also focused on developing students literacy and numeracy skills in tandem with due recognition being given to the overlap that can occur between both concepts. Students were seen to be confident in their reading and their written work was of a good standard. Comprehension skills were also developed and a notable feature of these lessons was the amount of open and warm dialogue between teachers and students which also positively impacted on students learning and upon their self-esteem. As well as attending to the cognitive domain teachers made every effort to ensure that all students, and particularly those with more profound needs, were made to feel valued and to feel that they had a contribution to make to the lesson and to the school.
The well-equipped adjoining resource rooms are used as a base room for some students who have more complex needs. Here students develop their basic skills in settings that promote their learning while also being able to access a range of subjects with their peers in mainstream lessons. Such arrangements are commendable and serve as a model of good practice for schools seeking to best accommodate students with moderate and severe-profound learning disabilities. The school’s attitude and efforts towards accommodating all students was also manifested in the engagement with local groups and the placement of specific equipment in the classroom.
The quality of learning and teaching observed was very good and student learning was in keeping with, and sometimes surpassed, their assessed ability. The school is encouraged to examine how best the good teaching and learning practices witnessed during the course of the inspection might be shared with, and implemented, by all teachers. It is suggested that the staff handbook may be useful in documenting these practices. Activities such as team-teaching may be useful in providing opportunities for staff to witness these practices.
The school engages in a comprehensive range of procedures to assess students’ learning and to inform teaching. Assessment data assists but does not determine the limits of learning for students in Scoil Phobail Bhéara and the school has many examples of students surpassing initial expectations. Students’ engagement and achievements are communicated to home on a regular basis. As well as pre-state examinations, formal examinations take place at Christmas and summer. Parental interaction with the school is ongoing and encouraged. Appropriate standardised and diagnostic tests are used to determine learning and inform teaching. Investigations into the most appropriate screening and diagnostic tests to determine ability and attainment levels in literacy and numeracy are ongoing and are carried out in consultation with the school’s Guidance Counsellor. Students’ progress is also assessed on a daily basis by subject teachers and by class-based examinations. Students’ work is monitored, stored and used sensitively to assess and determine progress.
Some standardised retesting of literacy and numeracy attainment is already undertaken in the school. In order to promote a collaborative and whole-school response, it is recommended that the findings from retesting, along with other student gains, should be appropriately shared with colleagues. Such findings could in turn feed into the aforementioned student register. In more recent times, members of the special educational needs team have presented to colleagues and it is suggested that such good practice should be extended to facilitate sharing of assessment information, based on entire year groups or individual case studies. This information can in turn support subject department planning where all teachers can identify, for example, the literacy and numeracy demands and developments associated with their own syllabi and programmes.
A range of nationally accredited curricular programmes are on offer in the school. The school makes particular use of the flexibility provided by the Junior Certificate Schools Programme to provide national accreditation in a manner that is inclusive and student-centred. Participation and achievement in state examinations are rightfully a source of pride for all concerned including those students identified with moderate general learning disabilities. The school adopts a systematic approach to arranging reasonable accommodations in certificate examinations (RACE). Eleven centres were provided for RACE by the State Examination Commission in 2009. Students are facilitated by the school in becoming familiar with the relevant accommodation in advance of sitting the examinations.
Feedback to students was provided in a range of ways and students were appreciative of the teachers’ efforts to use the opportunity to encourage and guide future learning. This feedback was given orally and in writing, both privately and at whole class level, but always sensitively and in a manner that affirmed student effort. Journals were seen to be used to good effect with teacher and parent signatures assisting with communication between home and school.
The school’s assessment policy is being formulated and the school is encouraged to document the need to differentiate assessment and homework in a manner similar to the differentiation that occurs with teaching and learning in the classroom. As witnessed, the use of graphic organisers for both classwork and homework is a good example of this overlap. Similarly, peer- and self-evaluation practices associated with assessment practices also allow students to monitor progress and identify further learning goals. In formulating its policy the school may wish to adopt a broad interpretation of the assessment policy to include how all data associated with special educational needs can be used to affirm and promote good teaching and learning in all lessons.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the members of the school’s special educational needs support team and principal at the conclusion of the evaluation, when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published June 2010